Fear and Loathing In the GOP
Even in the grand tradition of scapegoating in American politics, J. Dennis Hastert's current plight stands out. The former high school coach-turned-accidental speaker of the House spent last week as the unlikeliest of fall guys for a sex scandal that involved a closeted gay Republican congressman, underage male House pages and unseemly instant messages. As fear and loathing spread through panicky preelection Republicans, Hastert looked like a goner, then a survivor, then a goner again and then, well, who knows.
"I was inclined at first to believe that Denny Hastert should resign," conservative activist Paul Weyrich told me on Wednesday.
But then Weyrich heard from Hastert, in one of the dozens of calls the speaker made last week. ("He called me, I didn't call him," Weyrich stressed.) Hastert explained that he hadn't known about Foley's graphic sex talk with a teenage House page. And the speaker argued passionately, Weyrich said, that he had properly handled the so-called "overly friendly" e-mail from Foley to another former page. Ultimately, Weyrich was convinced. He would not call for Hastert's resignation.
Hastert's defense strategy has worked -- so far. But the Foley affair has exposed deep fissures within the GOP a few weeks before midterm elections; when the story broke, everyone seemed to be in a different place. Some are in what one top House aide calls the "knee-jerk" camp -- those who called for Hastert's resignation right away. Others are in a camp awaiting more evidence. Still others are in the smell-a-rat camp, suspecting that Democrats were behind the whole thing. And finally, some are in the this-is-proof-of-America's-moral- decline camp, condemning Republican and Democratic leaders alike. No one camp was able to take control, thus allowing Hastert to continue as the longest-serving Republican speaker in history.
On Thursday -- the same day that the House ethics committee announced an investigation and issued dozens of subpoenas for documents and testimony -- the speaker held a news conference. "The bottom line," he said, "is that we're taking responsibility, because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before: The buck stops here."
At least until November. The Foley scandal has become very much about Hastert, the Republican leadership and the party's permanence in power. Toward the end of our conversation, Weyrich pointed to the post-Watergate election of 1974, when Republicans took a horrendous beating. GOP pollster Richard Wirthlin, Weyrich explained, coined the phrase "the embarrassed Republican vote," referring to those party members who were so appalled by events that they didn't vote.
"I think we may see the embarrassed Republican vote back again," Weyrich said.
One might assume that Hastert's supporters were most worried about the knee-jerk camp. And they were, early last week, when the conservative Washington Times published its editorial "Resign, Mr. Speaker."
But a few days later, the pro-Hastert forces came to believe that the knee-jerkers had done the speaker a favor.
In the normal course of a Washington scandal, as they explained this scenario to me, many days and many revelations would have to pass before a Republican would become so bold as to float the idea of dumping Hastert. By coming out so quickly against him, the Washington Times and its allies forced conservatives to take sides right away. Most of them, uncertain about the evidence, cautiously sided with Hastert.
"What the Washington Times did, in my mind, is they advanced it," the top House aide told me. "The question was, 'Do you think the Washington Times is right, or are they overreacting?' "
As it turned out, few chose to support resignation, and Hastert survived the initial challenge.